WORDS MATTER….ESPECIALLY THE LITTLE ONES!….The Washington Post ran a headline today that said, “Sutton Pleads With Senators at Hearing,” and Eugene Volokh was puzzled:

So here’s my question, which I can’t answer myself because I didn’t watch the hearing and haven’t read the hearing transcript — is it quite right to describe Sutton’s conduct as “pleading”?

Probably not, but surely Eugene has noticed that variations on the verb “said” are among the most popular ways of making someone look vaguely foolish without actually saying something that’s overtly untrue or unfair?

As a public service, here’s a list of favorites (mostly used by columnists, which is why it might have seemed so jarring in the news story above):

  • Prattled (“As Hillary prattled on about healthcare, the rest of us….”)

  • Muttered (“‘We need to hear some proof,’ the Democrats muttered helplessly….”)

  • Cackled (“‘Bush’s poll numbers are really slipping,’ Kennedy cackled….”)

  • Whined (“After Daschle finished whining about Rush Limbaugh, the subject turned to….”)

  • Bellowed (“‘The Enrons of the world need to be reined in,’ Wellstone bellowed….”)

  • Sneered (“‘Bush just isn’t telling the truth about tax cuts,’ Pelosi said sneeringly….”)

  • Droned (“As Al Gore droned on about tax policy, the audience seemed restless….”)

  • etc.

The all-time winner, however, is “shrill,” which is the hands down conservative favorite these days for describing any forceful liberal argument. In fact, as near as I can tell, conservatives find it nearly impossible to refrain from talking about Paul Krugman without using the word “shrill” in the next breath. It’s almost like it’s become part of his name.

This kind of language is remarkably effective: it sets an unmistakable tone, but you can hardly complain about the word itself without seeming petty, despite the fact that nine times out of ten the statement was made in a perfectly normal tone of voice. For example:

Eugene Volokh prattled on today about how “well regulated militia” really refers to the entire adult citizenry.

It’s hard to take exception to the factual statement set forth there, but it sure makes him sound like an obsessive crank, doesn’t it?

The lesson, as Newt Gingrich could tell you, is that language matters. But remember, liberals can do this too: if you want to make someone look weak, or silly, or just plain dumb, quote them properly and treat the facts with respect, but always hit the thesaurus to find an appropriately sneering variation of “said.” It’s the newspaper columnist’s secret weapon!

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